Ecuador, Peru and Colombia are reportedly pushing hard for patent protection for traditional remedies to be included in the proposed Andean Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US. The countries want "minor" protections for local plants used to make medicines. Existing rules only cover products and ingredients manufactured in laboratories.

Under the new laws, drug companies would be forced to inform indigenous tribes of any patent applications based on traditional knowledge and subsequently negotiate payments with them. However, a number of US-based multinationals are opposing such reforms claiming that there is little evidence of bio-piracy. Peru disputes this claiming that a US company was awarded a patent recently for the Peruvian plant "maca," which is to be marketed as a natural erectile dysfunction treatment.

Industry observers claim that the US is facing the unwarranted consequences of its drive to strengthen patent legislation in the region. Such guidelines are designed to help protect US companies from counterfeiting and the theft of intellectual property, but now trading partners are beginning to use the rules to their advantage.

Some market sources claim that the Andean countries are simply seeking a "trade-off" with US as part of the negotiating process and that the FTA is still on track to be completed in the near future. The US is particularly keen to ensure that drug-testing data is kept out of the hands of generics drug makers for a minimum of five years, a provision they were unable to get in the Central American Free Trade Agreement earlier this year. As a result, local reports suggest they may be willing to compromise in other areas.